Why U.S. Schools Are Still Segregated — And One Idea To Help Change That

Jul 7, 2020

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional. The decision is often framed as a landmark decision that transformed education for Black students, allowing them equal access to integrated classrooms.

But more than six decades later, segregation in American schools is still very much a reality, says Rebecca Sibilia, founder of EdBuild, a nonprofit that investigated school funding inequities in America.

Her team found that predominantly white school districts get collectively $23 billion more per year than predominantly nonwhite school districts.

That's because of another important, but less-studied Supreme Court case: Milliken v. Bradley in 1974.

In Milliken, the Supreme Court ruled that if a school district line is drawn anywhere for almost any reason, Sibilia says, desegregation doesn't have to cross that border.

"It ultimately had the effect of, in essence, reversing a lot of the impact of Brown," Sibilia says, and "entrenched the power of the school district border in desegregation efforts."

This created a system of fractured communities — and a fractured system of education funding — that means even today, only about half of America's 50 million public school students attend integrated schools, Sibilia says.

"The other half are enrolled in predominantly white or predominantly nonwhite school districts," she says. "And when you get to 75, 85% white or nonwhite, really, desegregation can't be meaningfully achieved."

Here are excerpts from her interview on All Things Considered.

Let's talk about the mechanics of how resources also don't get distributed equally among school districts. Can you explain the basics of how we fund our public schools?

Property taxes and locally raised taxes make up about half of all education funding. And the state then tries to make up the difference between what local communities can raise. ... What we find is that even though the states make valiant efforts to do so, they consistently fall short.

What alternative funding models would be more equitable than funneling local taxes into school districts?

Funding education through property taxes is not a bad thing. It's actually a very good thing. Property taxes tend to be the most stable of all of our revenue sources, and that's certainly going to show itself over the next few years where state economies are going to be really hurt by this pandemic.

So fixing the problem means allowing property taxes to escape the border, in essence. So these borders that have become unmalleable because of that Milliken v. Bradley decision don't necessarily need to define where property taxes stay.

We've conflated this idea of local funding and local control of schools. But what we need to do is start to separate those concepts. Just because you're running your own schools and governing your own schools doesn't necessarily mean that you get to keep all of your money.

What we've put forward in one of our final EdBuild [reports] is the idea that maybe we can actually be busing dollars across a school district border even if we can't bus kids across it. ... It would serve to smooth out these wealth discrepancies that we see coming from very fractured property tax bases and allow for a much more even start to our school funding system.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In the wake of ongoing protests for racial justice, young people in America are demanding change, not just from police departments and legislators, but also from classrooms. Petitions are circulating all over the country urging schools to incorporate anti-racist education into their curricula. Here's Sterling Hardaway from New Rochelle, N.Y.

STERLING HARDAWAY: You can't develop the next leaders in the world without really educating them on anti-racist resources and how they can be advocates for this change.

CHANG: To better understand what an anti-racist education means, this week we are taking a look at the American public school system from inside and outside the classroom. Back in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional. But many would say that segregation in American schools is still very much a reality today. Rebecca Sibilia is one of those people. She founded the nonprofit EdBuild to better understand how schools in America are funded, and she joins us now. Welcome.

REBECCA SIBILIA: It's great to be here.

CHANG: Your team found that predominantly white schools get $23 billion a year more than predominantly nonwhite schools. So can you just help us understand what actually happened after Brown was decided? Why are we still seeing segregation among schools, and why are resources not getting distributed equally still?

SIBILIA: In 1974, there was a really important court case that ultimately had the effect of, in essence, reversing a lot of the impact of Brown. That case was Milliken v. Bradley. And what the Supreme Court ruled was that if there is a school district line that's drawn anywhere for really any reason, that desegregation doesn't have to cross that border. And so what it did is it entrenched the power of the school district border in desegregation efforts that created a system of very fractured communities and, as a result, a very fractured education funding system.

Today, our school districts are drawn in such a way where of about the 50 million students that are enrolled in traditional public school districts, only half are enrolled in a school district that's between 25% white and 25% nonwhite. The other half are enrolled in predominantly white or predominantly nonwhite school districts. And when you get to 75%, 85% white or nonwhite, really, desegregation can't be meaningfully achieved in those kinds of systems.

CHANG: In your work with EdBuild over the last five years, you saw a direct link between racial segregation in schools and the way public education is financed. Can you just explain real quick the basics of how we fund our public schools?

SIBILIA: So property taxes and locally raised taxes make up about half of all education funding. And the state then tries to make up the difference between what local communities can raise from very differential tax wealth. And what we find is that even though the states make valiant efforts to do so, they consistently fall short.

CHANG: So then the question is, how do we reverse this? I mean, what alternative funding models do you think would be more equitable than simply funneling local taxes into school districts?

SIBILIA: Funding education through property taxes is not a bad thing. It's actually a very good thing. Property taxes tend to be the most stable of all of our revenue sources, and that's certainly going to show itself over the next few years where state economies are going to be really hurt by this pandemic. So these borders that have become immalleable (ph) because of that Milliken v. Bradley decision don't necessarily need to define where property taxes stay. Just because you're running your own schools and governing your own schools doesn't necessarily mean that you get to keep all of your money.

What we've put forward in one of our final EdBuild products is the idea that maybe we can actually be busing dollars across a school district border even if we can't bus kids across it. What that would do is it would serve to smooth out these kinds of wealth discrepancies that we see coming from very fractured property tax spaces and allow for a much more even start to our school funding system.

CHANG: And how does evening out the playing field for financing school districts - how does that ultimately affect actual education, do you think?

SIBILIA: If you can get everybody into a system where the starting point is equal, you start to level that playing field in terms of representation, which means that the interests of nonwhite students will be heard more evenly in our advocacy and considered more evenly in the way that we're funding schools.

CHANG: Rebecca Sibilia is the founder of EdBuild.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

SIBILIA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.